Marc Minkowski spoke to Vincent Huguet about the project Davide penitente with Bartabas, Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble and the Salzburg Bach Choir

What preoccupies a conductor when he is not conducting or thinking about a new project? For Marc Minkowski the answer is clear: horses! For a few years now he has been so captivated by this fascination, parallel to music, that he does not hesitate to undertake long trips to Germany, England or even further afield because he has heard about a horse that he has to 'meet' at all costs. For the first time in May 2014, during the Ré Majeure Festival on the Île de Ré, he brought together two of his great passions, and with the horse specialist Manu Bigarnet organized a performance with horses and vaulting dancers to music by Jimi Hendrix, Samuel Barber, John Adams in a tent and entitled Tactus…. It was the first attempt by this 'Equestrian-Musician' and it will not be the last. He has dreamed up a completely new spectacular show for the Mozart Week, with Bartabas, the 'Horse God' in France. He explains how it all came about:

Marc Minkowski: I've been following the work of Bartabas and his troupe Zingaro and at the Académie équestre in Versailles for a few years now. His show Le Chevalier de Saint-George, which he presented in 2004 by the Neptune Fountain in the palace gardens, or Voyage aux Indes galantes (2005) and La Voie de l'ecuyer (2014), which I found magnificent, were performances that made me want to consider doing a project with him. Not only because I am very impressed by his work with horses but because his very interesting approach to music appeals to me. Bartabas says quite frankly that he does not like staged opera, he even hates it, but he loves music, especially Bach; in the year 2000 he even staged a work, Triptyk with two pieces by Stravinsky, Le sacre du printemps and the Symphony of Psalms which were performed together with the Dialogue de l'ombre double by Pierre Boulez. I have met Bartabas regularly over the past year and I offered him a new project for Salzburg with music by Mozart. For him it is also a sort of premiere, something very unusual because normally he devises everything himself, does all the planning and realization.

As I know his work and his world very well, I planned less familiar works which are also abstract enough so as not to impose a precise dramatic concept. On the contrary, Bartabas has enough freedom and can do justice to his preference for a certain abstraction. This music is not narrative and allows him a huge range of possibilities. I chose Davide penitente, K. 469, a rare work dating from 1785, which, as far as I know, has never been staged. On the one hand I find it interesting to present rarely performed works by Mozart, as we did two years ago with Lucio Silla. I know the Mass in C minor very well and much of the music from that was used for Davide penitente. Another reason for making this choice is that I know Bartabas loves sacred music, but more because of its abstraction than from reverence. I gave him the piece to listen to and he immediately accepted. He did not know the Mass in C minor very well, and although he originally wanted to do Rossini's Petite messe solennelle with me, Davide penitente more or less corresponded to what he had in mind. The work lasts about 45 minutes. As an equestrian performance has to be somewhat shorter than a traditional opera, on the one hand because of the demands made of the horses and riders, and on the other because there are not infinite possibilities of variation, I decided to add two brief works: Adagio and Fugue, K. 546, extremely austere and grand, and which will be played as a prelude, and finishing with the Masonic Funeral Music, K. 477. I chose this because it is rather solemn and corresponds to the location and to Bartabas' inclination for meditative music. He will also perform a solo to this piece.

The unusual thing about this project is that we are bringing horses back into the Felsenreitschule. As the name suggests, this was originally a riding school in which equestrian performances took place; nowadays it is used for opera, concerts and plays. We are bringing at least sixteen horses: eight cream-coloured Lusitanos and eight Argentine Criollos – two breeds with which Bartabas works intensively in Versailles. Of course it is not an easy project, especially because of the safety regulations and the necessity to have enough space. We would have been able to have the orchestra in the pit but we are probably going to use this pit as an apron stage so as to have greater depth. I am also going to do something I believe has never been tried before: the musicians will be positioned in the arcades. Last year in January, when I was rehearsing Orfeo ed Euridice, we experimented a little, first with the choir and then came the first surprise: the sound reflected from wall to wall and travelled around the entire auditorium. After this very convincing first attempt with the choir, I asked the orchestra to take up position on four levels in the arcades, and we tried out the Kyrie and the Gloria from the Mass in C minor. We experienced the same acoustic surprise. It is certainly not easy and demands some adjustments so that the musicians and singers can hear each other but I firmly believe it is a challenge we can meet.

This project is very important for me because I am convinced that we can shed new light on the music and gain a new understanding. Horses have been part of cultural history, art and musical education since time immemorial. Architects who were enthusiastic about music frequently designed the centres of equestrian art in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. All these places were versatile, and concerts as well as plays could be performed there – often with horses, as for example in the Cirque Olympique or in the Cirque d'Hiver in Paris, or in the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, whose architect also designed the Dutch Riding School. It should also not be forgotten that the Spanish Riding School in Vienna was inspired by the palace chapel in Versailles. In these places a continuity and sometimes also a twin relationship prevails between music and equestrianism. Therefore I am especially pleased to be able, with this project, to revive something of the original purpose of the Felsenreitschule.


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